Thursday, 30 March 2017

Looking for Flora

The kids of Croughton All Saints C. of E. look a happy bunch as I skirt their playground on the north-easterly path out of the village. And so they should on a day like this. The early mist has burnt off, and the sky is a universal, hazy blue. I'm wearing an anorak, a gilet and a hoodie. The anorak comes off immediately, and the gilet follows it shortly afterwards. Hey, this really could be spring! Underfoot things have dried out considerably over the last few days, and some groundsmen will be glad. The English first-class cricket season begins today at an unprecedentedly early date. And it's not yet even April.

I have one last church to visit in this quadrant of the Peterborough galaxy, and then, phasers discarded, shields down, I'm off on a small extra-diocesan exploration of Flora Thompson country. The Klingons haven't reached Oxfordshire yet.

Sometimes I come across things in the country I just don't understand. And here's one of them by the path near an old quarry opposite the entrance to the Croughton airbase. It's a large marble (or faux-marble) plinth with a few holes drilled into it. As I look and prod, the only thought which comes to mind is the Obelisk in Kubrick/Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 A Space Odyssey, and given the proximity to all things spooky just over the road, it seems entirely possible that it's been dropped by an alien intelligence. What its function really was/is, I haven't a clue.

I disturb a pair of nesting red kites from where they've been holed up in an old barn, and crossing a ford find myself halfway between a long line of sheep who scatter right and left. I look ahead and see a pair of Not-So-Little White Bulls in the field beyond. More to the point they've already clocked my presence too. They shift their position at the feeding trough and stare me out. Hmm. I try to avoid their air of sullen menacing challenge with an alternative route, but all around the perimeter of the medieval village of Astwick I run up against impenetrable barbed wire and brush. There's no choice but to pick up the gauntlet.

In the event they're all pizzle and no action. Without missing a chew their gaze follows me one hundred and eighty degrees around their field until I find a stile to hop over. Then, after a trek across a stony field, I waste even more time trying to locate a safe way to cross the A43. After les bêtes blanches, my bête noire! I come into Evenley by School Lane which has the great merit of being close to the Red Lion so today it's pub before church. My sandwich and GB at one of the picnic tables are serenaded by Heart FM from the opposite house. They're playing Whitney Houston's 'I will always love you'. This alone would be 'bad, very bad' as Donald Trump would have it, but the builders up on the scaffolding join in the chorus loudly and out of tune, which relegates the experience into the 'terrible, absolutely terrible' category.

                                                              Village green, Evenley.

St. George's church is down a back lane of modern detached houses opposite a farm. In fact quite a lot of Evenley seems recently improved or rebuilt, and the crisp, handsome spire on the church is no exception. The building is Gothic Revival, dating from the 1860s and replaces a medieval church which presumably became non-viable. I read Psalm 46 to cheer myself up on a day in which DT is writing an executive order effectively reversing all Obama's climate change legislation, and the SNP are about to call a second vote on independence north of the border. Oh, and tomorrow Theresa May will trigger Article 50. Not a good week in the news.

From School Lane again I head south diagonally through some back gardens ( there's a right of way!) en route to Juniper Hill, Lark Rise in Flora Thompson's series of late Victorian memoirs of country life. I've been there on one previous occasion, and of course it's a bit disappointing in one sense, because there's not much to see. There were only ever 25 households even at the settlement's height. There are far fewer today. The inn is now a private house, and on the wall of another dwelling there's a Victorian post box, superseded by the Georgian one on the lane. The fields around seem to have relatively scrappy soil - or so it appears to my untutored eye. In the play, Flora's little brother Edmund (Edwin in real life) asks his mum plaintively 'Why are folk in Lark Rise so poor?'

Poverty is never glamorous, whether of the urban or rural sort. 'We were poor but we were happy' is rose-tinted spectacle nonsense: a rationalisation. People make their own fun somehow, of course they do, with a bottle of cider on the back of a hay wain or at a sing-song in the church hall, but it's compensation for what they lack. And somewhere along the line the result will always be resentment, rebellion or outright revolution depending on how hard a population is driven. What will Brexit bring? We must hope for the best, but I'm wary of the hard Brexiteers, and their allies in the Press and the mob. They've tasted blood, and they may have all kinds of other objectives, unpalatable to the likes of me. They're probably no friends to faith, any more than they are of immigration, and part of their de-regulating agenda might see the state cutting free from the established church....which would therefore also see the end of the monarchy. But that would be the least of our troubles. Deregulation of building in the countryside and curtailing access to it might also come under the remit of this blog, and then there would be the NHS, benefits, employment rights, capital punishment...the list is long. Why else, they will say, did we leave the EU?  It's as hard to imagine being poor when you're rich as it is to exactly feel what winter's like when you're basking on your sun-lounger in the July heat.

I walk on down to Cottisford ( Fordlow in the books ). It's sort of the other half of Juniper Hill, but a little over a mile away. There are a few relatively impressive buildings, a lovely manor house - which has its part to play in Flora's narrative - and the tiny church of St. Mary the Virgin, which probably has Saxon origins.

Inside the church, tribute is paid to the fact that Flora (then Flora Timms) worshipped there, and on the wall is a plaque to the village's First War dead. The last name is Edwin Timms'. He went to Canada, and came back to fight for freedom with a Canadian regiment, only to lose his life at Ypres in 1916. This part of the story is the sad climax to the Bill Bryden production of Lark Rise to Candleford, much celebrated during the nineteen-seventies. Two of the eleven mentioned on the Cottisford plaque have the name of Cross. Flora lost a son of her own in the Second War, and she died shortly after it. I'll take away from my visit the memory of the lively stream which flows down past Manor Farm, and imagine her and Edwin playing around it, as I'm sure they must often have done.

I knew nothing about the Tusmore Estate before I arrived in it, and walking in from Cottisford first impressions are hugely positive. The tracks are superbly maintained and clearly waymarked. I turn right up a path flanked by ancient yews and then by lime trees. Energy and commercial bustle radiate from around me. I see the splendid Palladian house materialise beyond the trees, and glimpse a obelisk topped with gold sparkling away to my right. In front of the house a large team of builders are constructing or refurbishing a vast wall which begins to block the view of the façade as I come nearer. The waymarks have become more vague. I nearly miss the gate opening the way to the gravel drive which crosses the frontage parallel to the new wall and terrace.

Intrigued, I google 'Tusmore' on my I-phone. The house looks in such amazing nick. And then I discover what I've been missing. For all its initial appearance this is a new house dating from 2004, designed by architects Whitfield and Lockwood for the banker and entrepreneur Wafic Said. Now comes the slightly weird bit. I've been taking some photographs as I go, both of the long view of the house, and also of the assiduous building work. I see that a couple of the builders notice me and point. I walk on. There are now two broad gravel drives divided by a central reservation of beautifully kept grass, quite dry and firm underfoot. I can see from the map that the right of way continues along the frontage to hang a left at the end of the buildings. A very tame pheasant, gorgeously marked and lit by the bright sun, is strutting its stuff along the inner of the two drives. I cross the green strip to get a closer look, and possibly a snapshot. Then a 4 x 4 purposefully exits the house's courtyard car-park and I'm told abruptly from its cab to get off the grass: the path is along the gravel behind me. I protest that I'm doing no damage. The driver informs me that I'm on 'private property', and then watches me all the way to the corner for as long as it takes. He clearly got into the 4 x 4 to drive fifty metres just for the job of seeing me off.

What do I conclude from this? Well firstly and obviously, the estate employee is strictly in the right and I'm in the wrong, however petty he may have been, though there aren't any helpful signs on the ground showing where the right of way goes. Secondly I must have been caught on CCTV photographing the building, and of course I look well dodgy being in my ratty walking gear and all - so there's an element of disrespect being shown because of my appearance (but that's nothing new: I remember the way the police used to treat me when driving our ancient rusting, mustard coloured Transit dressed in a donkey jacket). But when I look up the details of Wafic Said, I can see that he has all kinds of interesting international connections ranging from the Assad family to Margaret Thatcher. He was the entrepreneur who facilitated the Al-Yamamah arms deal with the Saudis back in the nineteen-eighties. Doubtless therefore he has a lot of enemies: hence perhaps the heightened security and its interest in scruffy walkers. Who knows who I might be? But, Mr Said (not that you're ever likely to read this!)  that's the price of British values and tradition. These paths are our paths, not your paths, although they're your responsibility. A cat may look at a king. 'Mother, why are there so many poor people in Lark Rise?'  I think this is a time when we have to be very clear what kind of country we want to be, or Ian Duncan Smith, Bernard Jenkin et. al. will sort it out for us to our very great peril. I'm preaching, I know. I'll stop in a minute, and go back to being cuddly.

And the house, architecturally speaking? Very interesting.  I don't know what I think. Maybe we're never satisfied. Something of equivalent size designed in a brutalist style would be instantly condemned as an eyesore, and would certainly have HRH Prince Charles crossing Mr. Said off his Christmas card list. Yet there seems something unsatisfactory and fake about what Whitfield and Lockwood have done. Provisionally I think that as a curiosity, in the way that Stowe is, it all adds to the gaiety of the nation, and publicly deserves a chuckle not criticism. But when the Daily Telegraph in 2004 heralded it as a template for the building of further new, great country houses, I think they were 'aving a larf'!

And now I'm going to leave the gracious pastures of South Northamptonshire to tread the mean streets of Wellingborough, and think about quite different issues and people...

Stats bore.  22.5 km. 6.25 hours. 15 degrees C. sun, then cloud with a strong afternoon breeze. 21 stiles. 13 gates. 5 bridges. One unpleasant man. Pheasants by the score, scuttling. One fox, not at all lazy, jumping over the bush in Tusmore. One muntjac, unsuccessfully hiding. Larks in the fields, but not Rising.

We pray for the poor of the earth
And ask for justice and reconciliation;
For deliverance from famine
And an end to war.
We pray too for the rich and powerful;
For a spirit of charity
And the gift of wisdom and restraint.
We pray for ourselves,
Wherever we are,
That we may be kind and loving,
Mild of speech,
Slow to anger and
Quick to see good,
That your righteous Kingdom may come among us.
We ask it in the name of the Prince of Peace,
Jesus our Lord,

Tuesday, 28 March 2017


Happy Birthday to this blog!

It's exactly a year since the first posting - though it took nearly another month for me to properly get out and about. In the time since then I've visited/lurked outside/eaten my sarnis in the churchyard of plus or minus 118 churches in the Diocese of Peterborough (the plus or minus being the odd church in other dioceses, and not knowing whether to count the occasional oddball chapel, tin shack or derelict site!)

I've walked five hundred and thirty two kilometres in the course of twenty-eight different walks (I'll leave you to do the further arithmetical analysis on that).

I've written - ooh, far too many words - probably a short book already, and the walking and the writing have both been enormous fun. The experience has exercised my little grey cells as well as my quads. As the old pop song has it, there've been far more questions than answers. Perhaps the next few years' walking will find me some of the latter - there's still a very long way to go.

'And last week on the West Wing...'

If you're reading this, you probably know already, but just in case...

I'm walking to Peterborough by a series of circular routes which pass through every parish in the diocese, hoping eventually to visit each single church. The only rule is that every new walk must start somewhere on the circle of a previous one. Each incumbent gets a calling card through the post when I've visited their parish to say that I've been there and that I've prayed for them and their parishioners. The image on the card's front is the one you see above.

And your point is?

My point is that as our late and regrettable Prime Minister said: we're all in this together. None of our churches can be little islands on their own. We need to find ways to share and co-exist that don't just do the minimum or pay lip-service to that idea. That means me, and that means you, people of Peterborough Diocese, and that means clergy of the same - get wid da program!

So what about all the other stuff you waffle on about?

Well, it may be hubris, but I'm also writing a personal snapshot account of the way I find Northamptonshire in these transitional moments of the twenty-first century. Doubtless other people are doing the same thing from different angles and with different conclusions, and jolly good too. As at all other times in history, we need to chronicle these things, sighing over what we've lost, delighting in what we see, and fearing for what may come.

Where have you been so far?

Here goes:  (They sound like bus routes from a fifties' timetable...)

Walk 1:     Weston Favell - St. Matthew's, Northampton - Holy Trinity, Northampton - RC          
                   Cathedral, Northampton - Holy Sepulchre Northampton - St. Peter's Marefair,           
                   Northampton - All Saints, Northampton - St. Giles, Northampton - St. Michael's,
                   Northampton - Christ Church, Northampton - SS Peter and Paul, Abington - Weston
                   Favell   ( 27.04.16)

Walk 2:     Weston Favell - Great Houghton - Little Houghton - Little Billing - Weston Favell
                    ( 08.05.16)

Walk 3:     Weston Favell - Emmanuel, Northampton - Great Billing - Ecton - Rectory Farm -                  Overstone - Moulton - Weston Favell  ( 14.05.16)

Walk 4:     Holy Trinity, Northampton - St. David's, Kingsthorpe - St. Mark's Whitehills -   
                   Boughton  - St. John's, Kingsthorpe - Holy Trinity, Northampton  ( 21.05.16)

Walk 5:     Sixfields - Upton - Berrywood - St. Francis, Duston - St. Luke, Duston - Dallington -                  Kings Heath - St. James, Northampton - Sixfields  ( 02.06.16)

Walk 6:     Northampton Town Centre - Far Cotton - Hunsbury - Rothersthorpe - Milton Malsor -                 Collingtree - Wootton - Hardingstone - Northampton Town Centre  (23.06.16 ) 

Walk 7:     Sixfields - Harpole - Nether Heyford - Bugbrooke - Kislingbury - Sixfields ( 07.07.16)

Walk 8:     Wootton - Grange Park - Quinton - Piddington - Horton - Preston Deanery - Wootton

Walk 9:     Ecton - Cogenhoe - Brafield - Denton - Castle Ashby - Whiston - Ecton ( 26.07.16)

Walk 10:   Earls Barton - Whiston - Castle Ashby - Yardley Hastings - Easton Maudit - Grendon -
                   Earls Barton   (12.08.16 )

Walk 11:   Grendon - Bozeat - Farndish - Wollaston - Strixton - Grendon  ( 31.08.16 )

Walk 12:   Quinton - Courteenhall - Roade - Stoke Bruerne - Ashton - Hartwell - Quinton     

Walk 13:   Wollaston - Irchester - Great Doddington - Wollaston   ( 17.09.16)

Walk 14:   Boughton - Chapel Brampton - Church Brampton - Spratton - Brixworth - Boughton
                   ( 25.09.16 )

Walk 15:   Milton Malsor - Blisworth - Gayton - Milton Malsor  ( 29.09.16 )

Walk 16:   Moulton - Pitsford - Holcot - Moulton  (07.10.16 )

Walk 17:   Gayton - Tiffield - Easton Neston - Caldecote - Pattishall - Gayton   (15.10.16 ) 

Walk 18:   Pattishall - Cold Higham - Litchborough - Greens Norton - Pattishall  ( 04.11.16 )

Walk 19:   Greens Norton - Abthorpe - Towcester - Greens Norton   ( 24.11.16 )

Walk 20:   Towcester - Alderton - Paulerspury - Towcester   ( 29.11.16 )

Walk 21:   Paulerspury - Lillingstone Lovell - Silverstone - Paulerspury   ( 12.01.17 )

Walk 22:   Alderton - Grafton Regis - Cosgrove - Furtho - Potterspury - Yardley Gobion -
                   Alderton   ( 23.01.17 ) 

Walk 23:   Cosgrove - Stony Stratford - Passenham - Deanshanger - Wicken - Cosgrove
                    ( 28.01.17 )

Walk 24:   Abthorpe - Wappenham - Bradden - Slapton - Abthorpe   ( 02.02.17 ) 

Walk 25:   Wappenham - Syresham - Radstone - Helmdon - Wappenham   ( 20.02.17 )

Walk 26:   Radstone - Halse - Brackley - Turweston - Whitfield - Radstone   ( 04.03.17 )

Walk 27:   Brackley - Hinton in the Hedges - Steane - Farthinghoe - Charlton - Hinton in
                   the Hedges - Brackley   ( 10.03.17 )

Walk 28:   Charlton - Newbottle - Kings Sutton - Aynho - Croughton - Charlton  ( 27.03.17 )

If you follow in my footsteps, have fun, and take care...


Monday, 27 March 2017


Sue worked for many years at University College London. It was founded in 1826 as a resolutely secular institution to contrast with the 'old' universities at Oxford and Cambridge, which led Thomas Arnold to describe UCL as 'the Godless place in Gower Street'.

Today I begin in church-free (but hopefully not God-free) Charlton, although looking at the crossroads near the top of the village and the walled enclosure to its south, surely the remains of a medieval chapel must lie somewhere underneath? Churches 'take' in a particular location for many reasons, but please don't think the needs of a working population are by any means top of the list in determining their persistence! The wishes and convenience of the rich and powerful usually tend to be paramount. Thus today's faithful have to tread the nicely tarmacked path which runs the half mile from Charlton's small burial ground up between the fields to St. James, Newbottle when they want to worship.

I follow in their footsteps, but only before shaking a fist at the rapidly vanishing rear-end of a bright metallic blue BMW which hurtles into the thirty limit at something more like sixty. As it rounds the bend where I'm standing it confronts an unexpected oncoming car, and the driver nearly loses control. Had he done so, that could have been the end of me.

Paul Hayter's father, Canon Michael, once wrote lovingly about Newbottle:

                                  'The road here goes no further - stop and look
                                   Across its mown-grass verge and dry-stone wall
                                   To see St. James's church. Its square stone tower
                                   Has stood here for eight hundred years or more
                                   The nave and chancel for a hundred less.
                                   All's country made, and unspectacular,
                                   But fully fit to be a house of prayer.
                                   The churchyard, closed a hundred years ago,
                                   Is filled with lichened gravestones, and enclosed
                                   By oak, horse chestnut and a copper beech;
                                   Its gates embowered in an arch of yew;
                                   Its grass kept short by being grazed with sheep.
                                   In spring the snowdrops, then the daffodils
                                   Emblazon either end; return each year,
                                   Their promise of new life again fulfilled.'

Betjeman couldn't have put it better.

From near the church I enjoy the first of a series of broad views far across into Oxfordshire from the vantage points of the ridge which runs north-east to south-west along the edge of Northampton's county. A bridlepath takes me over a stream and up to the high farm at Astrop, passing  'Rosamund's Bower' on its hilltop perch. It would have been a jolly place for a tryst. On further investigation there seem to be lots of bowers with Rosamund's name attached. She was the alleged mistress of Henry II, and there's a vaguely local connection, so I suppose it's not impossible they rode up here for a snog. She was schooled by the nuns of Godstow, near Oxford, to whom she returned when the affair went wrong to die disappointed and rather before her time. Subsequent legends have her dispatched by a vengeful Eleanor in ways various and gory.

From the farm it's pretty much a straight line to the church at Kings Sutton, although some of the route is along a busy road, which involves a lot of stepping onto the verge, and saying thank you to the more polite motorists. It's a lovely, bright spring day, but not withstanding I don my high-vis jacket in self-defence.

Cities are defined by the existence of a cathedral (sometimes!) Maybe a settlement should now be called a town if it has a railway station, which Kings Sutton does, half way between Banbury and Bicester on the line which takes the traveller into Marylebone in a little over the hour. I wander up to the village (town!) green and enjoy the view across to SS. Peter and Paul with its lofty, elegant, buttressed spire. Going forward into the churchyard, I gently push the church door open, but heads turn at me from the chapel on the far side: a Lenten service is taking place, and I've interrupted them mid-sermon. I cross to the pub for a ginger beer. It's warm enough to sit outside and I indulge myself listening to the gossip of two friends who meet too infrequently. 'We must do it again...Yeah soon...It was really good fun, wasn't it?...Thank you...Shall I get the coffees?'  The worshippers leave the church, un-noticed by the coffee drinkers.

St. Peter and St. Paul's is in the care of the Bishop of Richborough. If 'Ebbsfleet' has contemporary, transient, jarring resonances, at least Richborough, with its history of invasion and its still-extant gaunt Roman walls says something about the continuation of tradition, which is partly what these Christian colleagues want to underline. I don't agree with them in their concerns or specific beliefs about the role of women, which I think tends to lead them into weird places - 'taint' and all that. And if they want to join the church in Rome, then I'm not sure what would be so bad about that, for them or for we who 'remain'. Richborough was a point of embarkation as well as arrival. But much better still if we can all stay together and rub along as multi-hued comrades on the pilgrimage.

There's a problem, apparently growing with every passing year, about how we can amicably disagree in the twenty-first century, both inside the church and also when we're wearing our non-churchy, political hats. At any rate, St. Peter and St. Paul's are clear that everyone is welcome within their walls, and unlike some, they pay their parish share to Peterborough, as so they should.

But we're all so sensitive to nuance these days, sometimes appropriately, and sometimes maybe to our detriment. The other evening at home we were watching a telly programme about the choristers of Salisbury, where both boys and girls contribute to the cathedral's worship, although with what degree of mutual integration wasn't exactly clear. I started out encouraged and charmed (partly by the appearance of the Dean, June Osborne, long time fan of Bruce Springsteen), but as the programme developed I began to feel uneasy. The further we went the more the emphasis seemed to be on the boys, not the girls, and there was something about the way the director had lit their faces which seemed to be too lingering, to have too much of the 'pin-up' about it. I was put in mind of a 2018 calendar currently on sale in Rome's many ecclesiastical and tourist shops featuring pretty young priests, which made us unsure whether to giggle or shudder. The Church's recent history, both Roman Catholic and Anglican has left us all wounded. And this week it tripped up once more, in the matter of Jeffrey John and Llandaff, although it may be that the Press has been mischief-making again, as it habitually will.

                                                               Garage: Kings Sutton.

Eschewing my compass and relying on my faulty sense of direction, I miss my way across unwaymarked fields outside Kings Sutton, and unnecessarily visit a sewage farm and another out-of-town cemetery as I make my way to Aynho, 'the apricot village', via Walton Grounds where there's yet another deserted settlement. The trees are just coming into blossom, and although the village is bisected by a busy 'A' road, I always think this place is the first intimation of the comfortable Cotswolds as the traveller moves west. And nowhere is the architecture more refined and splendid than around the church. Up a short drive I can peek to my right at the dignity of the Big House, and then turn left to be confronted by St. Michael's late medieval tower. Rather extraordinarily it's tacked onto a Georgian nave and chancel of massive, prosperous proportions, like some ginormous stable block. Maybe the interior doesn't quite match the quality of the exterior, but those lavish quantities of honey coloured dressed stone on the outside are hard to beat. I think about whether I have time to call on Simon the Rector and his wife Heather, and decide that I don't and anyway it's Friday, and they may be enjoying a hard-earned day off. The Astwick Vale benefice (stop me if you've heard this one before!) is geographically vast. I think to myself that here we're in the Kuiper Belt of the diocese: this is a place which feels like it belongs to Oxford. It's the downside of having a cathedral at one end of the patch. Even suffragan-led Brixworth is a fair way from here in sentiment and natural allegiance.

A path slopes down beside the stately park between stone walls. I can't help it. I always look at walls like this and think of money: we know too well what it costs to have someone rebuild even a short portion of a collapsed domestic dry-stone wall. After one such occasion, I took a holiday in Cephalonia, and sitting in a roadside café, remember looking at the tiered retaining walls along a Greek hillside and calculating that I was looking at hundreds of thousands of quid in English expenditure. Emerging into the open, a herd of farm deer look at me nervously from behind a secure fence, but even though I mention blackcurrant sauce and 'Wellington', they've learnt enough to ignore me after taking a precautionary, assessing sniff in my direction. Without the fence they'd have been over the hills and far away before I'd said 'caramelisation'.

In due course I come to a road, and crossing it, follow a manicured drive towards a farm that's clearly more than just a farm. Two vaguely corporate types clutching clipboards and charts pass me and say hello, all checked shirts and brown corduroys, a bit like old-school BBC Studio Managers. Soon I reach signs which tell me I'm passing through the property of 'A Day in the Country'. This is another example of country experience as bonding activity, but unlike the paintball outfit encountered on the last walk, this variation is posh and expensive. Visitors can 'bodyzorb' (no, thank you!) or from the sounds emanating from well-maintained sheds, perhaps try their hand at milking a cow or feeding the swine, whilst drawing suitable business lessons from the activity. I can just imagine the post-experience testimonies:

'After a day in the country, I felt somehow so much more grounded, and you know, real...Our business model really benefited from getting down and dirty together...Meeting that yokel on the drive changed my whole perspective on what it is I do...

Sometimes we Crosses have gloomily speculated that the destiny of the English countryside is as 'theme park'. Sorry to repeat myself, but if there's any silver lining at all in Brexit, it's maybe that this trend can be reversed.

All Saints, Croughton is another of Simon Dommett's churches, and it has some wall-paintings. Part of the south side is swathed in plastic, and the church is shut, so I can't get a look. But medieval wall-art isn't really the point about this village. It's hard not to have one's eye drawn to the communications 'golf-balls' which are the visible part of RAF Croughton, now the home of the US Joint Intelligence Analysis Centre. This is big potatoes is terms of European/NATO/Western defence. Gone are the days when one could get up-close-and-personal views of F-111s flying out of Northamptonshire to bomb Libya on the orders of what Don Henley once described as 'this sad old man we elected king' - Ronald Reagan. Now under the leadership of another old man, sad or otherwise, the important stuff is mostly in concrete bunkers. We wait to see whether this new and huge investment on British soil will be retained or relocated under the new regime. Probably we should want to see it retained, even if it means Russian nukes are undoubtedly targeted on this corner of our county, ancient churches, wall-art and all. And that gives a whole new meaning to 'unchurched', don't you think?

Stats man:  22km. 13 degrees C. Sunny throughout, initially undermined by a keen north-easterly breeze. 6 stiles. 19 gates. 9 bridges. 1 nice little tunnel near Aynho (Under a garden. No military significance.) A woodpecker, green. Two deer near Charlton, free-roaming. A number of de-hibernated squirrels, busy. March hares, several and bouncing.

We are truly a rainbow coalition.
Aren't we?
Or do you see us differently?
We value so much what makes us all individual.
We just love our selfies.
But perhaps you mostly see what we share:
Our sin;
Our poverty of spirit;
Our pride and lack of charity.
Help us to be content that you know us each by name,
And give us grace and creativity
To work together humbly for your greater glory.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Take a closer look...

                                             Available in St. Michael's Farthinghoe...

I think I'm in Brackley's Pocket Park. The Banbury railway line used to run through here on its way forward to Buckingham. The path scrambles up and down over what were once maybe two levels of track bed, and then there's a muddy slipslide up, over and down the straight road which now bypasses the western edge of town. In the 1950s someone was thinking sensibly about how a rural line like this could work. Perhaps it could be re-imagined as a bus on rails? A couple of one-carriage diesel railcars with go-faster chevrons on their cabs were brought down from Derby, but not even their cost-effective running could make the route pay. The passenger service had disappeared even before Beeching wielded his mighty axe. The other side of a stream the path pulls up over crop ready fields to a farm. After a series of well kept gates I join the lane into Hinton-in-the-Hedges, past the Cricket Club whose first 2017 fixture is yet to be announced.

The village has a lovely name, and although I wish I could tell you its significance with authority, I can't. There's another Hinton not far away towards Daventry, so I guess it's differentiating itself from that, and the OS map shows a very unusual pattern of field strips clustered in a fan around the village centre. Medieval strip fields are ubiquitous, except that their extent and location is usually only detected on the ground by ridge and furrow contours in larger contemporary fields. Cartographically the H-in-the-H configuration looks atypical, but today I don't get a chance to look at them. If I'm to believe OS 191, presumably lots of small fields = lots of hedges, hence the name, but nothing on the Web will confirm it.

Walking through the village I miss the path up to The Most Holy Trinity church and creep up on it from the side through the small playing field. Holy Trinity is in the Astwick Vale benefice where Simon Dommett is in charge, although he lives in Aynho. Simon was a jolly curate in our own parish a decade and a half ago, a man who always displayed the virtues of having been out in the world and done another job successfully before taking up his priestly calling. (Current Diocesan Directors of Ordinands please note: 23 year olds straight out of college may not immediately make the best clergy. If you have a moment, just think about why DDOs may think they do!)  If you look Simon up on the internet, you'll find that the national newspapers took an interest when he camped out overnight for a couple of weeks in one of his previous churches to frustrate lead thieves. I don't know if this was nosy journalism or enterprising PR by him.. When I see Simon, I shall have to ask.

Inside the church, my eye is drawn to the splendid coat of arms hanging on the north wall which honours the Queen. Too old or young to be ER of course. It's marked AR, and so celebrates Queen Anne. There are also some great, rather fading photographs in the back corner. One shows the village children's cricket team for 1926. There are two girls among the boys. I hope they weren't there just to make up the numbers. Perhaps they were variously a fearsome opening bowler and an elegant, prolific number four bat.

Not far away across the fields is the other ecclesiastical building in the parish, the chapel of St. Peter at Steane Park. I ring ahead to make sure it's OK to visit, and Georgina promises to let me in if I call at her office in the house grounds. The chapel offers a charming broad facade to the visitor in its garden setting, beside fishponds surrounded by snowdrops and first daffodils. Simon Dommett and his team are mandated to say or sing six services a year here, and although inside there's the customary notice proclaiming that child safeguarding procedures are in operation, there's little sign that this legal requirement is much needed. The atmosphere is rather like a much loved garden shed. Some maintenance is going on. The old box pews are confusingly arranged - indeed the whole interior seems eccentrically aligned. The makeshift pulpit and altar are next to each other on the east wall. To my left as I face them there's a step down to a lower chapel. But if one imagined the whole thing turned round by ninety degrees, it would be logical to think of that as an antechapel from which one would approach a possible altar placed on the wrong i.e. south wall. Puzzling!

I plod northwards along a path which takes me past one of those odd small, circular copses whose origin could be anything from a quarry to a bomb crater to an ancient site. At a farm I turn left and eventually enter Farthinghoe up the hill and along the Cockley Road. The 'hoe' is on the far side of the village where the ground drops away more sharply. The children are enjoying a noisy lunchtime in the school playground as I open the door to St. Michael and All Angels. There's a table in what used to be the schoolroom there, now a spacious vestry, and I sit down to have my lunch too. Back in the south nave is a dreamy reclining funerary statue of George Rush fashioned in a pseudo-classical style. It's by Charles Regnart, fashionable and well-thought of in early nineteenth-century London. This work in white marble is said to be his masterpiece. Old George is wearing his slippers: a bible is clasped in his hands. It's rather touching, and very affectionate.

In refuelled state, I plunge south on a metalled road with the sun on my back, and get slightly lost in the boggy, soggy recesses of Coleready Plantation, emerging by the 'Delta Force' paintball facility. How very 1990! Having been sent up relentlessly on the telly as everything you don't want for the purposes of 'building your team' (i.e. encourages aggressive, partisan, individualistic behaviour!) I thought this regrettable fad had passed into history. Amongst the trees is a neglected, tracked military vehicle. Signs along the permissive path advise me that I'm not standing in a 'spectator area', and hint at danger from flying bullets. I always smile to myself at the phrase 'permissive path'. One expects to find canoodling couples round every corner hastily rearranging clothing.

At the road I zig-zag onto what I think is a continuation of the path. A chap is coming towards me from the opposite direction, which reinforces my mistaken impression that I'm headed the right way. He asks me if I'm lost, which should always be a sign that not everything is as it should be. In slightly gung-ho, maybe even self-righteous fashion, I confirm that I'm tickety-boo en route for Charlton. He tells me that I'm going a funny way about it, and as we look together at the map I see I've misread some pretty obvious details.

Paul is footpath warden for Charlton, so he should know a thing or two about what goes where. He also tells me that if I'm hoping to find a church in the village I'll be disappointed: it went long ago, as more recently did the Methodist chapel. Those that worship have to traipse up the road to Newbottle. I'd misread that too - although I'd plead some minor mitigating circumstances. There's a rather un-OS like vague blob in the middle of Charlton which I'd myopically misinterpreted as a church symbol. Lamely and somewhat patronisingly (as I think in retrospect) I thank Paul for his work and help, and get on the right track.

Later on, a bit of research tells me that I've been talking to Sir Paul Hayter, one time Clerk of the Parliaments, and now Chairman of Northamptonshire Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England. This makes me smile because there's been a programme on the telly this last fortnight about the House of Lords (very good it's been too!), in the course of which a familiar face from my student days has shone our from the screen. David Beamish until very recently held the same post that Sir Paul occupied with distinction a decade before him. David ( now Sir David), Robin ( now Sir Robin) Masefield and I used to hold silly conversations together in their room in (Third?) Court at St. John's College Cambridge. I seem to remember Robin was much involved in the University Tiddly Winks team. I can't recall whether he was lobbying for, or it was actually possible to get, a half-blue for this. All these men have had distinguished, contributing careers in British public life. I've had an interesting life, but not one with such profile, or indeed one rewarded by any public honour. How do I feel about this? You make your bed. You lie in it. My dad would be more disappointed than me, I expect. But I do feel just a tinge of regret that I haven't made the difference I would have liked.

Stats man:  21k. 6 hrs. 11 degreesC. Mild, even warm in the sun, but not yet t-shirt weather. 18 stiles, 20 gates, 5 bridges. One busy woodpecker near Steane. One goat sharing a field with his friend the donkey near Brackley: the goat curious about me, as goats are inclined to be: the donkey disdainful, true to his own calling.

In memoriam:

Our friend Michael Jones passed away last Sunday. He was a great man. His energy and vitality were infectious. He cycled into Northampton and back, and then suffered a stroke from which he didn't recover. He took over a pawnbrokers' business from his parents and turned it into a fine jewellers with a glittering reputation, which still occupies perhaps the prime commercial site in Northampton so appropriately at 1 Gold Street. He was a Lay Reader, and a fine, humanely Biblical preacher. The shop's advertisement in our parish magazine used to have as its strapline 'The One'! He was a believer in common ownership, and practised what he preached in his own business. He and Anne were instrumental with others in founding Workbridge and the Daily Bread co-operative project, promoting sheltered employment. According to Anne, he was always 'noisy': he certainly could be controversial, and was quite happy setting cats among pigeons if he thought it was required. When as chair of the governing body at Weston Favell Upper School he introduced me as a new governor (I was wearing a particularly lairy jacket, and had much more hair then!) he said 'Now this is Vince Cross. If we hadn't seen it, we wouldn't have believed it'. He was enthusiastic and encouraging about our music-making at St. Peter's, and also more recently about this blog. He and Anne were great walkers. They visited 700 of Simon Jenkins 1000 best churches, and at various times tramped the whole of the South West Coastal Path as well as undertaking the pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela. He will be missed so much by so many, but chiefly of course by Anne and the rest of their family. Their diamond wedding would have been celebrated together later this year.

We thank you for these great people;
Giants of ambition and faith;
Possessed of the gift of encouragement;
Nurturers of the talent of others;
Seeing you in all men and women.
We pray that you will raise up their equals
From our daughters and sons
So that the flames of hope, faith and love
Still burn among us
And keep us warm
As we too grow old and weaken
And that with them we may be brought
To the glory of your eternal Kingdom.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

On the verge

Having walked across the fields near here, I'm now more aware of the rise of the A43 as I drive out of Towcester. The expansively curving highway climbs steadily, and although the maximum is only at about 160 metres, the traveller feels they're gaining much more height than is actually the case. I remember that, coming back from Oxford on winter occasions, snow has been lying in Hazelborough Forest while there's been none in Towcester. The lane from the dual carriageway to Radstone is little more than a cart-track. In the hamlet I park on a broad grass verge and get dressed for rambling.

It's bright but blustery. I walk westwards into the buffeting gale. Here and there sections of trees have pulled away from their main trunks and straddle the bridle path, the legacy of Storm Doris which passed through violently the previous Thursday. This year the names given to the winter storms accommodate both British and Irish tastes, though I should think the number of parents in either country donating the handle 'Doris' to a new daughter must be vanishingly small. For a while the path funnels into a green lane towards Halse, with a ditch clearly visible to one side. This is an old east-west route now of no importance, but perhaps it was once an alternative to the 'Welsh Road' for driving sheep to market. It would be interesting to put a metal detector on that ditch!

Halse is a settlement on a straight 'B' road running south towards Brackley. Along both sides are prosperous detached houses, and where I turn right, there's an old wooden mission church now a Village Hall, either itself once a 'Chapel of Ease' or on the site of an older building. I didn't know, so perhaps you don't either, that 'Chapels of Ease' were sometimes built within large parishes where the distance to the main parish church was too great for comfort, and indeed the hike into either Radstone or Brackley would always have been an inconvenience, unless you were uber-dedicated or felt particularly burdened by sin. I walk paths across undulating farm land in the rough direction of the bigger town. Two very friendly sheep, probably not far off delivering their spring lambs, rush across the field towards me, and look reproachful when I tell them I have no food unless they're partial to Waitrose sandwiches. A couple of stiles further on, I hear a farmer's shout, and looking back see the sheep cantering in his direction. There's a whole flock in another adjoining field, so I wonder what makes these two animals so special?

Soon I'm in the environs of another farm where old machinery seems to have come to die. I see it's a problem, getting rid of old trailers, harrows and horse boxes, but someone, some time, is going to have to clear up the mess. Significantly perhaps, the nice stiles and waymarks closer to Halse have now disappeared, and it's only when I finally successfully identify which piece of scrappy woodland is 'Fox Covert Wood' that I'm sure I'm on the right track. My compass has de-magged again. My fault, for leaving it too near the mobile phone in my rucksack. The speaker inside it is probably responsible for the reversal of polarity. Mental note to self to always wear compasses geekily round my neck from now on.

There are lots of 'Fox Coverts'. Would it be wrong of me to suggest that hunting types have always actively colluded in providing fox sanctuaries, so that at the chosen moment these supposed scourges of the countryside (I mean the foxes!) can be driven out for the pleasure of the Hunt? I've never really bought into the argument that it's all about protecting the chickens.

Brackley is bigger than Towcester, although with the infills of new housing in both places it's hard to be sure by how much. The field paths deposit me in a housing estate, and I pick my way down to the Banbury Road to enter the town. It's fun to look at the successively older houses as one approaches the centre. First are the very recent builds, then comes the seventies' stuff, then a few representatives of the nineteen-thirties, then some small Victorian semis, then grander villas of the same age, and finally the stone cottages and town houses of greater antiquity. The Georgian Town Hall is swathed in plastic, having a facial. Opposite me is the 'Green Room' café, to which I go for a tea and cake session. At an adjacent table are some lunchtime refugees, who from their conversation and demeanour perhaps work for Brackley's most famous commercial enterprise, the Mercedes motor-racing team. No, Lewis Hamilton is not among their number.

Wikipedia points out that Brackley is built around two centres, and this turns out to be palpably true on foot, although I'd never noticed it when driving through, not that one does these days, not now there's a by-pass. The High Street is handsomely broad, and along one side is the old bit of Magdalen College School, the home of the establishment's sixth-form, with its ancient Chapel, reputedly the oldest building in use in any British school. I imagine this is a hotly disputed factoid. Many universities claim to be 'the oldest', and it partly depends on what you mean. In this case the Chapel of St. James might contain stones which are really old, but does that do it for you? The High Street rises as I go east, and then flattens out at the top of the hill where I notice a small park to my right which is in the care of the National Trust for reasons not immediately obvious. The settlement thins out. And then, when the ground begins to fall away again, down near the Great Ouse is 'Old Town' with its large church of St. Peter. At one point here, the curve of a high wall suggests the kind of protection I've more often encountered in French towns and villages, although I remember a similar example up in Kirkby Stephen. There's a funeral in the church so I can't go in. The hearse (a Mercedes, naturally!) is open, waiting to receive the coffin in a few moments' time. The funeral directors look very smart. It's an upscale affair, which is kind of what I'd expect just here.

   By the bridge under the A43 at Brackley near the site of the old station on the Great Central.

Depending on whom you read the River Great Ouse rises in Syresham or Whitfield. It forms the county boundary on the eastern side of Brackley. I cross into Buckinghamshire like it's a foreign country and walk on into pretty, civilised Turweston. The electoral roll of the The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Turweston is quite small. On entering the beautiful little church with its Burne Jones-like stained glass, the senses are filled with that characteristic musky smell-mix of cold and damp which almost defines the ancient numinous. For Lent the Buckingham Deanery has a series of Evensongs: 'Lessons on renewing the church - Nehemiah style'. I quote: 'In our Lent sermons we will look at the methods Nehemiah learnt and successfully used as he led the demoralised Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem'.

Well, firstly, wow, this is great, some serious thinking's going on here, and congratulations, whoever thought this up has remembered that as Christians we've inherited the Old Testament too. But then slightly more disconcerted thoughts arise. Someone has decided what the lessons to be drawn are, have they, and they're going to tell the people of Turweston and elsewhere what they should do? I suppose I've got used to the idea that during Lent we should sit together and share perspectives on the Christian life in an attentive, listening mode. What do we make of the notion of 'authority' as applied to the Anglican Church in 2017. Does it have a right to any? How is it derived? How mediated? In the particular, what kind of Temple might we be rebuilding, and to whose specifications?

The wind has moderated a great deal, and it's now a rather glorious walk under sunny skies on to Whitfield. A hawk hovers over the river, happy dog-lovers exercise their canine friends, the occasional light plane takes off from Turweston airfield, the ground is drying remarkable quickly. The farm in Whitfield (the Northants side of the Great Ouse and therefore back in Peterborough diocese!) is a puzzle. There are scores of horse boxes in the yards, and a rough notice outside advertises the next 'race meeting'. I don't remember Whitfield cropping up in the racing results. The church of St. John the Evangelist is opposite a sometime pub. On this day, this doesn't feel an altogether happy place. I can't give you a reason: the village just has an aura of anxiety about it. The literature in the church largely features The Farming Community Network, which aims to give support to farming folk in trouble. The litany of likely difficulties reads: tiredness, overwork, inheritance, loneliness, isolation, depression, form-filling, regulations, debt, pollution, environment, bereavement.  Rural poverty and distress is real. How will Brexit affect it - for good or ill?

The small organ in St. John's isn't locked, and the switches to turn it on are obvious. Unsure of the etiquette, I don't usually do this, but to cheer myself and the building up and let God know I'm there, I start up the blower and improvise for ten minutes, exploring the few stops on the single manual. It mostly works OK. I wonder when it was last played and by whom.

I'd been expecting trouble crossing back over the A43 (the OS map was unclear if it was possible) but in the event it's a breeze and via the lumps and bumps of the disappeared Nether Radstone I make my way back to the Audi. As I approach, I see a sign I'd missed. 'Private verge!' it reads, 'Do not park here'. Or words to that effect, polite but definite. Stroppy old me of course wants to know who the verge belongs to? And do they get a lot of nuisance parking here? Really? Why?

On the way back home, I have to go to Brackley on the slightly better made, more westerly road. Very soon I hit a succession of new roundabouts that mark the housing estates being built on the northern side of town. The project is to be called 'Radstone Fields' and rightly so. This is how I think things will work. HS2 will be built in a sweeping arc about a mile away, and then just as is happening now between Brackley and its by-pass, all the land up to the rail line will be consumed by housing and warehousing. No one has let on that this will be so, but I believe the tacit government view is that the land in a broad swathe between say, Cambridge and Oxford, Wellingborough and Coventry should be swallowed by development over the next twenty-five to fifty years. All of it. It's simply expendable to those living in the south. It's what you pass through on the way from Manchester to London. I hope that in some dusty archive, virtual or hard copy this rambling (lol)document will survive, my version of Cobbett's 'Rural Rides', an elegy for forgotten, quiet rural beauty, so that when next such a thing is proposed elsewhere, say between Bristol and Exeter, it can be reviewed as one tiny contribution to the ensuing debate.

Stats man:  17k. 5 hrs. 11C. Blusterous at first, gusting to 40 mph, moderating later, tho' always breezy. 12 stiles, 13 gates, 6 bridges. One solitary bee, a risk taker in urban Brackley after lunch. The two friendly sheep. One large slice of orange polenta cake (thank you, the nice ladies of 'The Green Room').

Father God

I'm torn.

I mean it when I sing
'We thank thee that thy Church unsleeping,
'While earth rolls onward into light,
'Through all the world her watch is keeping
'And rests not now by day or night'.

This great hymn always makes me cry.
The fellowship of the Church is a wonder,
Stretching backwards and forwards through time,
Girdling the earth with faith.

But I spend a heck of a lot of time
Moaning and griping
About the Church's inadequacies:
Its leadership;
Its muddle;
Its lack of rigour;
Or commonsense
As I see it.

Of course it's imperfect
As I too am imperfect.
By your grace
May we all work towards
The perfection we glimpse
In Jesus Christ your son
Through whom we pray.